| Fort Myers News-Press
More than 1,000 coronavirus deaths have been reported in Southwest Florida, a grim reminder of the deadly toll of a pandemic that continues to rage across the nation.
As of Jan. 7, the Florida Department of Health reported 1,049 COVID-19 deaths in Lee and Collier counties — 695 in Lee and 354 in Collier. That’s exactly 10 months since Southwest Florida’s first reported death — North Fort Myers resident Jermaine Ferro.
Compared to the demographics of the nearly 22,500 COVID-19 deaths of Florida residents reported as of Jan. 7, Southwest Florida’s victims are on average older, whiter and more likely to have been in a long-term care facility. Statewide, about 62% of COVID-19 deaths were residents ages 75 or older, nearly 72% were white and just over 37% were associated with a nursing home.
While those 75 years of age or older made up about 66% of the COVID-19 deaths in Southwest Florida, they only accounted for a little more than 8% of the total cases in these counties. Similarly, while men are the majority of COVID-19 fatalities in Southwest Florida, women account for just over 50% of the COVID-19 cases in the two counties.
The youngest person to die from COVID-19 in Southwest Florida was Carsyn Leigh Davis, a 17-year-old student at Cypress Lake High School who died June 23, two days after her birthday. She is listed as 16 years old in the Department of Health’s list of cases and deaths because the date the state counted her case was prior to her birthday. Citing privacy concerns, the state does not include the actual date a person died of COVID-19 in its county-specific data.
The oldest COVID-19 victim was an unidentified 105-year-old woman in Collier County, whose positive case was counted by the state on Dec. 9.
Here are some common characteristics shared by Lee and Collier residents who died of COVID-19 as of Jan. 7:
- More than 83% were white.
- Nearly two-thirds or 66% of the deaths involved people ages 75 or older.
- About 61% were hospitalized as a result of COVID-19.
- Nearly 55% were men.
- Close to 43% were nursing home residents. The state has reported one death of a staff member at a Southwest Florida nursing home.
- Nearly 41% had contact with someone who also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Experts who have analyzed Florida’s COVID-19 data say the number of deaths is likely higher than reported. That’s because on average, state data shows about 30-40% of the deaths reported on a given day actually occurred anywhere from about two weeks to more than two months ago.
That means the reported number of Lee and Collier residents who died of COVID-19 so far this month will continue to grow, likely until at least sometime in March.
The reporting lag began in July when COVID-19 deaths exploded across the state and medical examiner’s offices began struggling to certify them in a timely manner. In mid-August, in an effort it said was to ease the backlog, Florida removed the requirement for medical examiners to certify COVID-19 deaths, allowing physicians to send them directly to the Department of Health.
Then in October, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees announced the state would start conducting a more thorough review of all reported coronavirus-related deaths in an effort to ensure accuracy.
Dr. Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, said the reporting lag all but disappeared soon after Rivkees’ announcement. But the delays have since reappeared.
“It would be helpful to have transparency in the process and an explanation of why we continue to see these lags in reported deaths,” Salemi said. “It’s exceptional to me to have a death reported that’s more than two months old. We don’t know why it’s happening or what’s being done to rectify it.”
Salemi has been tracking the relationship between hospitalizations and deaths since Florida began reporting daily COVID hospitalizations in July. He said an increase in the seven-day average hospitalization rate has proven to be a good predictor of a subsequent rise in deaths five to seven days later. However, the full scope of that rise may not be known for weeks because of the persistent reporting delays.
“If 150 people died in Florida on Jan. 4, maybe in three weeks we’d know about 130 of them,” he said. “That’s a pretty good picture of what happened on that day but we won’t know the full picture until some time later.”
Ferro and her husband Salvatore were among the first Florida residents to contract the coronavirus after traveling to the Dominican Republic in February to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Ferro died on March 5, while her husband spent five weeks in a coma before eventually recovering.
“I never got to say goodbye,” he said. “I didn’t know she passed until I came to.”
At the time of Ferro’s death, those who had recently traveled, particularly to COVID-19 hotspots, or had close contact with someone who had, were thought to be at greatest risk. The first two COVID-19 deaths reported in Collier County and two of the first three in Lee, including Ferro’s, involved residents who had recently returned from international trips, according to the state Department of Health.
However, according to the latest data, only 20 or 2% of the COVID-19 deaths in Lee and Collier involved travel. Eleven of those deaths occurred in March or April.
With COVID-19 vaccines slowly beginning to roll out across Southwest Florida, there is optimism that this year could mark a turning point in the pandemic. However, Larry Antonucci, CEO and president of Lee Health, cautioned it will take months to get everyone in the county vaccinated.
“The coronavirus is still spreading, and hospitalizations and deaths are still rising,” Antonucci said on Dec. 31. “People’s lives are at stake, and just because the vaccine brings hope does not mean we can let up now.”
If you know someone who died in Lee or Collier counties from the virus and would like to honor them by sharing his or her story, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and phone number as well as the name of person you’d like to tell us about.
Lee County COVID-19 deaths
(All data as of Jan. 7 report)
- Total: 695
- Date first death occurred: March 5
- Date first death counted by the state: March 7
- Youngest: 16
- Oldest: 102
- Men: 388 (55.8%)
- Women: 307 (44.2%)
- White: 590
- Black: 58
- Other: 18
- Unknown: 29
- *Hispanic: 102 (may be of any race)
- Involved travel: 12 (1.7%)
- Involved contact with a confirmed case: 256 (36.8%)
- Visited emergency room: 424 (61%)
- Hospitalized: 437 (62.9%)
- Long-term care facility deaths: 297 (42.7%)
Collier County COVID-19 deaths
(All data as of Jan. 7 report)
- Total: 354
- Date first death occurred: March 29
- Date first death reported by the state: March 29
- Youngest: 30
- Oldest: 105
- Men: 195 (55.1%)
- Women: 159 (44.9%)
- White: 284
- Black: 24
- Other: 22
- Unknown: 24
- *Hispanic: 75 (may be of any race)
- Involved travel: 8 (2.3%)
- Involved contact with a confirmed case: 172 (48.6%)
- Visited emergency room: 207 (58.5%)
- Hospitalized: 205 (57.9%)
- Long-term care facility deaths: 151 (42.7%)
Note: This analysis is based on the information provided by the Florida Department of Health and involves cumulative Lee and Collier county resident deaths as of the department’s Jan. 7 report. The state cautions that the data it provides is provisional and subject to change.